Thursday, January 17, 2013

Michael O'Loughlin on Catholic Tribalism, and Dave Zirin on Bizarre Manti Te'O Story (and Moral Cesspool of Notre Dame Football Program)

At America's "In All Things" blog, Michael O'Loughlin notes the fragmentation of contemporary Catholicism into tribal units--though he understands the term "tribalism" somewhat differently than I do.  My understanding of Catholic tribalism and its corrosive consequences in the church's communal and spiritual life is reflected more precisely in Dave Zirin's concluding comments at The Nation today about Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick's response to the revelation that the recently deceased girlfriend of Fighting Irish star football player Manti Te'O never existed.

Zirin notes that he has for some time now characterized the Notre Dame football program as "a moral cesspool." And if there seem to be serious problems at the level of the student athletes in the program, then those problems ultimately point back to their adult mentors and the "moral compass" guiding those mentors. Zirin points to the incomprehensible difference between how Swarbrick has reacted in public to the suicide of Lizzy Seebert following her report that she was raped by a member of the team, and his reaction to the Te'O story:

It says so much that Te’o’s bizarre soap opera has moved Swarbrick to openly weeping but he hasn’t spared one tear, let alone held one press conference, for Lizzy Seeberg, the young woman who took her own life after coming forward with allegations that a member of the team sexually assaulted her. Swarbrick’s press conference displayed that the problem at Notre Dame is not just football players without a compass; it’s the adults without a conscience. Their credo isn’t any kind of desire for truth or justice. Instead it seems to be little more than a constant effort to protect the Fighting Irish brand, no matter who gets hurt.

There, to me, is the essence of Catholic tribalism: protecting the brand no matter who gets hurt. And that tribalism deeply corrodes many Catholic institutions, regardless of whether the players in those institutions happen to be Catholic or not. It does so because it is woven into the Catholic self-identity of these institutions, and has been radically reinformced by the current leaders of the Catholic church. 

In the case of football programs such as Notre Dame's, the tribalism centers on giving unwarranted power and privilege to heterosexual or heterosexual-posturing males. That unwarranted power and privilege run throughout Catholic institutions, and they run down through channels that flow from the very top levels of leadership in the Catholic church. The way the football program operates--with its lack of a moral compass--is inbuilt in Catholic institutions, insofar as it is impossible to ask why straight or straight-acting males deserve such unmerited power and privilege within Catholic institutions.

Certainly other institutions and other football programs (think Penn State) are capable of this kind of male-entitled tribalistic mentality. This is not a uniquely Catholic problem. It is, however, a deeply intractable problem within Catholic institutions, since in the Catholic church, unmerited male heterosexual power and privilege are given a theological stamp and the stamp of official hierarchical approval. These theological and hierarchical stamps result in closed secret societies full of rotten secrets, which regard themselves as in no way accountable to anyone outside their club. This system is at its apogee in the closed system of clerical power and privilege within the Catholic church.

And the consequences for Catholic institutions, for their intellectual life and moral credibility, are exceedingly grim.

Later: I'm just now seeing Irin Carmon's valuable commentary at Salon making the same point Dave Zirin makes about the disparity between how Notre Dame officials have reacted to the Manti Te'O story and that of Lizzy Seeberg.

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